Senator David Fawcett (Liberal) is a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

The National Security Strategy announced last week by Prime Minister Gillard overlooks the important lessons from Australia's 1999 intervention in East Timor.

The Australian public wanted to protect the East Timorese people from violence. The Government assumed the ADF could easily protect the East Timorese from a militia. Most of us would probably make the same assumption today. How quickly we forget that in 1999 we only just succeeded. The realisation that Australia was ill equipped to project and sustain a relatively small force in a neighbouring country such as East Timor was recently described as a 'strategic shock' by Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison. 

East Timor provides a good benchmark for what we expect our military to be able to do at short notice. In turn, this should inform both Government and public on how much we should be spending to sustain a balanced force, capable of repeating such an intervention if required. There is remarkable similarity in the thinking that underpins Prime Minister Gillard's National Security Strategy, however, and the policies that led to a decline in defence capability and the subsequent strategic shock of 1999. 

The strategic thinking prevalent at that time was that Australia's national security should be predominantly concerned with defence of the mainland against state actors. This theory led to an investment in capital equipment to defend the air-sea gap, but allowed a run-down of the Army, the Reserves and the national capability to deploy and sustain an armed force.

Despite the theory, history tells us that most of Australia's recent military operations have involved deployed forces (with significant land force components) protecting communities from non-state actors (Somalia, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan). As the current French operation in Mali demonstrates, this can be expected to be a feature of conflict well beyond the '9/11 decade' that Ms Gillard has just pronounced to be a thing of the past.

At a time when 'budget priorities' are necessarily on everyone's mind, it is also important to remember that the capability taxpayers have to fund is not just the aeroplane, ship or tank. These capital assets are only made effective in combat by enablers such as materiel support systems, supplies, maintenance, facilities, individual and collective training and even doctrine. Enablers such as these are largely invisible to the public (they don't make for good photo opportunities) and they are expensive. This makes them an easy target for cost savings because it is possible to save money while retaining the appearance of a credible defence force. East Timor should remind us of the dangers of 'hollowing out' the back-of-house functions that make Defence capable and effective in combat.

There is an underlying assumption in the National Security Strategy that defeating credible threats will involve coalition partners in joint operations, which will make additional resources available to the ADF. 

While alliances and regional cooperation are imperative, they should complement rather than replace adequate levels of sovereign force readiness. This is because the national interest of allied and coalition partners will inevitably take priority. Australia experienced this from both the US and European nations during the Iraq conflict when shipments of ammunition and spare parts were withheld by the supplying nation for their own use. The ADF was unable to deploy some requested capabilities, such as armour, due to low stocks of ammunition, inadequate maintenance and training, and poor availability of spare parts. Even in East Timor, despite UN resolutions and eventual support from 22 nations, Australia's initial deployment had to rely on existing capability which proved barely adequate to engage a lightly armed militia.

There is much to commend in the National Security Strategy, which outlines a vision for a more integrated approach to national security underpinned by a strong, credible ADF. Vision without dollars, however, is hallucination. 

The National Security Strategy highlights the significant percentage increase in Defence budgets after East Timor, as if this somehow justifies current and future 'consolidation'. There is no recognition of the very low funding base at the start of this period or the significant cost-growth pressures articulated by the Pappas Review in 2008.

Using Pappas indexation figures, the successive budget cuts since 2009 mean that there is a shortfall of some $25 billion over the forward estimates just to maintain the existing force. This shortfall has manifested itself through maintenance being skipped on armoured fighting vehicles, upgrades being delayed and decreased levels of training, all of which sounds depressingly like the situation prior to East Timor. 

The fiction perpetuated by the Minister that all is well because cuts are not affecting current operations relies on the Australian public not understanding the basis of 'operational supplementation'. Put simply, when operations cease, so does the additional funding that has enabled the ADF to acquire and sustain much of the state-of-the-art equipment used in Afghanistan.

Simply increasing the defence budget, however, is not the answer. The other lesson from East Timor is that the large budget increases which came afterward have perversely led to many of the inefficiencies identified by the recent Senate report into Defence Procurement. The Government needs to take account of the measures highlighted in that report concerning governance, sovereignty and engagement with industry that will increase the productivity of taxpayer capital invested in Defence.

The National Security Strategy, like the Defence of Australia policies of the 1980s, assumes that there will be time to prepare for conflict against a state actor. Recent experience shows that the requirement for deployments such as East Timor (or the French in Mali) arise at very short notice, meaning that our forces deploy with whatever they have available. 

The East Timor experience should, above all, be a salient reminder that our national security and the fate of Australian men and women sent into harm's way by future governments will rest largely on what current governments are prepared to spend, and how productively they spend it. Lest we forget.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.